Duterte and our revolutionary history



I wrote in response to the historical allusions that troubled me as Duterte defended the killings committed under his presidency. It was published by CNN Philippines, the full article here.

“It was as if the country was caught between two mirrors, and thus in that doubling, our tragedy as a nation was made infinite. Caught between the trauma of our history and the trauma of our present, Filipinos were gaslighted. An abuser condemned an earlier abuser of the nation in order to sanction his own abuse. I found myself reeling, wondering if I had misunderstood why the country had waged revolution in the first place. This infinite regression of trauma is not for the weak of mind: but it weakens us. It further destabilizes our vague memory of that revolutionary past…

Duterte’s rant has teeth — but no virtue.

The slippery slope of his self-serving rage is that, on top of having bare knowledge of our history, now we must also misapprehend its ethics.

Via Duterte’s pique, our history becomes mere trapo — a ragged cloth to wipe off spittle from a foaming pikon mouth.

But most of all, his rage misreads our history as blind nationalism. His is history as neurotic fetish, egotism’s scar — not space for reflection.”


Listening to Bong Revilla is Worse than Cancer

Listening to Bong Revilla is Worse than Cancer

In July, I got the news I had breast cancer. In August, my surgeon told me it was not only cancer, it was a BRCA2-positive, triple-negative basal-cell carcinoma—a kind of super-duper invasive genetic mutation that sounded like a cross between alien kryptonite and at least eight of the ten plagues that descended on Moses. In September, I had a bilateral mastectomy with one-stage reconstruction using acellular dermal matrix thingamaboobs (yes, I think that is what they are scientifically called, actually made of pigskin, I think; like a good Filipino, and Angelina Jolie, I have pork in my breasts). Then I had eight weeks of bed rest and nonstop eating of barbecue-flavored garlic-ridden Boy Bawang. A lymph node was taken out, examined, then declared negative for further cancer—but despite the good news, the procedure was torture, numbing me on my right side so that I thought a zombie had eaten up my flesh while everyone kept telling me all was good. Then, because of the high incidence of second cancer recurrence given my newly discovered mutant genes, I had four toxic doses from November to March of Taxotere with Cytoxan, despite being “cancer-free,” meaning for four months I lost my hair and my taste buds, gained gastroesophageal reflux disease (fondly nicknamed Gerd, like some just acquired pet iguana), and, what the hell, could get no pedicure for weeks (nail cells are fast-growing, like carcinoma, and chemotherapy eats up everything that looks alive). In addition, my oncologist packed steroids into my veins because, she said, it turns out in her experience, hello, every single human being is allergic to chemotherapy. No kidding, I said, skin burns all over the place but flushed with that steroid high.

And yet, when I woke up to my FB feed this morning and saw the message some “friend” was sending around, I thought—fuck Jesus and all of the seven dwarves.

The sight was worse than cancer.

Like this page, said my so-called friend (now not)—Bongbong Marcos for President in 2016.

And as if this were not enough to make me want to zap my news feed until the world looked like the dunes of Paoay, I then clicked like a masochist on Senator Bong Revilla’s privilege speech.

I mean, those are two oxymorons in one mouthful. “Senator Bong” and “privilege speech.” The first sounds like no senator and the second is no privilege nor, as far as I could tell, speech.

It was a comedy routine.

As I told a friend, this is the kind of thing you do for art. In my job as a writer, I have taken the dictum of Flannery O’Connor to heart when it comes to the Philippines: “The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.” Unquote.

And this is true of Vhong Navarro as of Bong Revilla.

So I clicked play.

While a grim, ineluctable rage and dawning sense of tragedy came over me looking at the page for President Bongbong for 2016, a nonstop run of giggling took over as I listened to Senator Bong.

I mean, this is too much fun in the Philippines. As another friend, survivor of Thatcher’s Britain likes to say—I laughed so hard I cried.

Batter my heart, three-personed, music-video playing, tearful pop-song-writing pork barrel demonyo, Bong Revilla. And was that a trinity of pigs I saw hugging each other in inexplicable self-congratulation, unashamedly bunching together at the end of the speech (screen shot below), like a trio about to sing “My Way” before (I hoped) a righteous gunman shoots them—or was it just my imagination running away with me, damaged by basal-cell carcinoma?

How on earth could a snapshot like that be possible?

Only in the Philippines is not my answer.

Only among public servants with a brutal lack of shame—this aggressive candor that smiles and smiles and is a villain, so Hamlet says, is not endemic only to the Philippines. But it is perfected and limitless in people like Enrile, Revilla, and Estrada—three consummate, incredible pigs. We need to remember they are actual people who have kicked back real people’s taxes and blood and tears. They are not abstract ghouls. To say “only in the Philippines” diminishes their atrocity, as if they were only a trope.

On the other hand, the sight of triplet pigs smiling unabashedly all in a row does not diminish the scene’s irreality.


People ask me why I have never written a novel about current events in my country. My response is—how can you write fiction about real but unbelievable things? Writing a novel requires crafting a suspension of disbelief. Listening to Bong Revilla’s speech, I was beset with one weird travesty of sense after another. Did he really wag his finger over the ills of the country—families with no food or jobs, lack of money to fight crime or help sick people in hospitals—when he is accused precisely of stealing the money needed to combat those ills? Am I missing something? Did he really ask us to unite with him against—well, him? Did he really invoke a list, like Napoles’s or Schindler’s, and so incriminate even God in his crimes? Did I really hear him issue a death threat in the Senate chamber (to the sitting president, no less) like some junior Nardong Putik or something, a gangster without a cause? The imperviousness to artistry in his script combined with the moment’s clueless cinematic posturing was breathtaking.

Comedy is tragedy plus time, so said Mark Twain (I think)—but in the Philippines, we keep getting comedy minus time equals tragedy. The depths of inanity in our political circus are not only an assault on citizens—they are also the despair of any novelist. When I began writing novels, I never wrote directly, but only in ‘side-view,’ with a peripheral eye, about Imelda, because, growing up as I did in Imeldalandia, I kept thinking—how can any writer top that? Imelda is a novelist’s burden to bear, because the story of her continued existence, the eye-opening fact that she is not in jail or at least once-upon-a-time crucified, is simply incredible—and yet for me, a citizen of Leyte, she’s a zombie reality that is also painfully true (in Tacloban, she’s a literal walking zombie, going around hugging people during high school reunions that are not even hers).

So instead I keep sitting at my desk writing about the horrors of the Filipino-American war—that gruesome history is less traumatizing than the surreality of Imelda.

But WTGF, our current events keep confounding my youthful rhetorical question—how can anyone top that? This indicted clown, Bong Revilla, has had not only one but two privilege speeches. Jesus Christ, did Senator Drilon not learn from his mistake already? Goddamn, Senator Drilon—two Bongs do not make a right! Is it the fault in our stars that there is no word as far as I can tell in any language, not even ours (which has the capacity for punning in at least seventy-three ways) that can sufficiently describe the nightmare of relentless irony attacking the defenseless funnybone of the Filipino public the minute Bong Revilla opened his mouth? Anak ng teteng does not cut it. In all of his elaborate, exhaustively catalogued, in fact slightly obsessive-compulsive ordering of sinners in his Inferno, not even Dante Alighieri imagined the circle of hell for that dense inversion of moral intelligence that typified every gnomic note in Senator Bong’s speech—not to mention the circle of hell in which we, the public, were cast into, merely for being alive at the time of his criminal privilege.

And then—he sang.

As one commenter, Anonymous, wrote, Karimarimarim. Or as another, also Anonymous, judiciously said—Just kill me now.

Of all the trite, unbelievably inevitable tropes of fun-in-the-Filipinisms he could have pulled out of his comedy ass, he did exactly what no self-respecting novelist would expect—or, he trumped the modernist (who still believes a story must be meaningful) with exemplary postmodernism—he reminded us in that moment, as the Senate turned into a music-video karaoke bar before our ears, that as a nation, we’re better off as fictions. The truth is a wound.

Worse, he composed a song, put it on an immortal youtube loop, and now we can make it the theme of our lives.

Huwag kayong mag-alala, he more or less threatened as he shifted into what he thought was his moving, musical valedictory—hindi kami mawawala.

The most truthful moment of his speech: Don’t worry, we will never be gone.

We know, Senator, we know.

Though there is no decent human being who is not allergic to frontal assaults on the sense of right and wrong—there is also no steroid to kill the toxic chemicals of moral perverts like Bong Revilla and all of his ilk in the Senate who hugged him without shame or fear of catching his disease after his speech (and I don’t mean just his twenty-seven hundred polygamy-bred blood relatives who have probably long sucked on the nation’s teat). Worse than cancer, these zombies will keep coming back, in different guises, in virulent strains, singing the same songs, as they eat our flesh into a numbing eternity. Don’t worry, we will never be gone. As folk wisdom knows—there is no such thing as cancer-free.